Summer can take its toll on any green areas in the Mediterranean. Despite being situated in the lush green Botanic Gardens, the Wildlife Park in Gibraltar is no exception. The first rains are always a welcome relief, and along with the rains comes a bounty of fresh, green and juicy wild foods for the animals at the wildlife park. The nutrition for captive exotic animals is a complicated business and not something the AWCP takes lightly. If an animal is in captivity, it must be provided with the basics for life; food and water, shelter, medical care, the freedom from fear and the freedom to move and to express natural behaviours. These are referred to as the Five Freedoms in animal welfare.

Most captive environments these days tend to go above and beyond these guidelines and strive to provide the most enriching and natural diet for their animals as possible. Much research goes into the diets at the AWCP and all species are given access, wherever possible, to foods they are likely to encounter in the wild.

Egyptian Fruit bats for example, feed on the fruits of the rubber tree (Ficus elastica) in the wild. A large rubber tree in the Botanic Gardens provides plentiful fruit during the autumn months that is offered to the fruit bats at the park to feast on. Staff at the park try to offer whole branches with the fruits still attached, to encourage natural foraging behaviours. Much of the cultivated fruit humans consume is far higher in sugar than wild fruits, this can cause health issues for the animals. A diet lower in cultivated fruits and access to wild foods provides the complete range of nutrients required, plus added enrichment and foraging opportunities.

Cece Jensen is a student from Denmark studying Zoo Keeping and has been an intern at the AWCP since April. After spending 6 months at Colchester Zoo as an intern in the reptile section, reptiles have become her passion. In Colchester Zoo, Cece worked with the Keeper team on their Browse portfolio. Browse is a term given to wild foliage and foods for animals. As part of her research project for her time at the AWCP, Cece will be compiling a file of all the animal-friendly browse and wild foods that can be given to each species at the park and also, the locations where these can be found in Gibraltar. This will be an invaluable resource for future interns and volunteers and staff to refer to in the future.

9am – All interns are given an opportunity to work with most of the animals in the AWCP in order to gain as many skills as possible. Each day, an intern is allocated to a member of staff to help them with their daily tasks within the animal section. Once fully trained, an intern, will be entrusted to carry out many of these tasks unaccompanied. One of the first tasks of the day for Cece is to search for browse for the animals, something that becomes increasingly difficult through the dry, summer months. One of the species that requires regular wild foods is the African spurred tortoise, or Sulcata tortoise, Katie. As the green weeds diminish throughout the summer, the juicy pads of the Opuntia cactus plant (prickly pear) and the aloe arborensens, both plants found throughout Gibraltar, provide a solution for most herbivorous reptiles. Sulcata tortoises can live more than 70 years and females can reach 105 kg in size. In the wild they would generally feed on dry grasses during the dryer seasons so hay is also offered in the diet. Most pet tortoises however, are reluctant to eat it and generally hold out for more succulent offerings. Improper diets can lead to obesity and shell deformation so it is important to persist with the correct diet.

Another species that benefits from the wild foods found in Gibraltar is the Spur-thighed tortoise, these tortoises are found in Morocco but also still exist some areas of southern Spain. Commonly kept as pets, these tortoises are now endangered in the wild due to the illegal pet trade and trafficking. Due to the close proximity to Morocco, it is possible to find similar plants and shrubs in Gibraltar most of the year round.

12pm – Every week, the Gardeners in the Botanic Gardens will provide the wildlife park with vegetation, mostly branches of olive or other non-toxic trees or bushes suitable for consumption by the animals at the wildlife park. Primates, particularly the macaques, benefit from this. Staff try to find a variety of vegetation similar to the natural vegetation of the species in the wild. Barbary macaques would naturally feast upon roots and shoots during the wetter seasons, when the vegetation in Morocco becomes green again. A selection of weeds, dandelions, vetches and other common greens are provided regularly during the wetter seasons. In the wild, some animals, particularly primates are found to self-medicate with plants, either by ingesting to help eradicate intestinal parasites or some odorous plants are used by capuchin monkeys to self-anoint, this is thought to repel parasites or self-medicate or even provide camouflage. In captivity, capuchin monkeys have been provided with garlic, onion and fennel to self-anoint and encourage natural behaviours.

Staff at the AWCP were recently given a new tree to try; the Mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), known to contain anti parasitic qualities. This was offered to most primates at the park and proved to be quite popular.  This plant is found throughout the Mediterranean region, from Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula.

In the past, parrots at the park were offered a mixture of herbs with known medicinal and anti-parasitic properties. These were mixed together and offered daily. It is possible to analyse the mix after a few days to see which herbs were most popular amongst the parrots and from this, it has been theorised that it could perhaps reveal otherwise hidden ailments, depending on the herbs selected for consumption.

2pm – The AWCP is lucky enough to be immersed in the beautiful Botanic Gardens. The rich, lush, vegetation gives the enclosures a more natural feel, even where it is not possible to successfully grow vegetation within the enclosure. However, staff are aware that this proximity to all that tasty vegetation, can be a source of frustration for some of the inhabitants. ‘We have to be careful to watch the vegetation surrounding the enclosures. “Near to some of our macaque enclosures we have fruiting trees, particularly the nispero or loquat, (Eriobotrya japonica) a succulent orange fruit, the size of a plum. These fruits are exceedingly tempting for many of the species at the park and this could be a source of frustration for them. It is important that we try to offer the fruits and the leaves from nearby, safe trees, as and when they are ripe enough to be eaten. This is in order to reduce the potential anxiety caused by an inability to reach a source of food, which is an inherently natural instinct of all animals,” explains Jessica, the Park Manager. Toxic plants also have to be watched out for, especially when collecting wild foods for the animals. Only strained staff are enlisted to do the collection and the selection must be washed through and checked before feeding to the animals.

4pm – Many of the animals at the wildlife park are fed throughout the day, sometimes up to four times. At least one of these feeds is wild foods, browse and/or enrichment foods. The last feed of the day is at 4pm. This important feed gives the staff at the wildlife park time to check the enclosures and well-being of the animals before closing. This feed is often one of the larger portions to see them through the evening or in the case of the larger primates and pigs, a scatter feed. This is usually a mix of seeds and pulses. This mix is scattered throughout the enclosure, particularly on the deep-litter floor. Deep litter at the park is made from chipping created by shredding waste vegetation from the Botanic Gardens. These chippings create an ideal substrate for most of the parks’ species, particularly those who would naturally forage on the ground in the wild. This encourages natural foraging behaviours in most species and keeps them busy and active for longer. The potbellied pigs have snouts designed for rooting through vegetation and undergrowth so they love to snuffle their way through piles of chippings, searching for hidden treats!

The animal feeding times are now on display in the park reception so you can time your visits to watch the animals being fed and learn more about them from the friendly, informative keepers and volunteers.

To find out more about the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park, visit www.awcp.gi or follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

Previous articleBonnie Scotland
Next articleUrban Eatery
Jess Leaper
Jess Leaper has managed the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park (AWCP) for over 12 years. Having completed her MSc project on the Barbary macaque, she later returned to Gibraltar and was asked to help out at the Wildlife Park. Vowing to somehow improve the enclosures of the primates there before she moved on, she managed that and much more. Now also active locally in sustainability groups and campaigns, raising awareness of Climate Change, particularly in relation to species and habitats.